April 19 to May 16 marks the 78th anniversary of a month-long uprising by Jewish fighters of Warsaw, Poland, in resistance to Nazi plans to send Warsaw’s Jewish population to the gas chambers.
The Warsaw ghetto battle was the first major civilian revolt against the Nazis in all of occupied Europe and was a remarkable event in the history of mankind.
In October 1940, the Nazis established a ghetto in Warsaw in which they crammed Warsaw’s Jews, along with Jews from Germany and other parts of Poland. A half-million Jews were stuffed into an area 2.5 miles long and a mile wide, sealed off from the rest of the world by a 10-foot-high brick wall, topped with glass splinters embedded in plastic. The Nazi plan was not simply to segregate the Jews but to intentionally create an environment that would destroy them. Disease, hunger — the official daily food ration was under 300 calories — and occasional mass executions took their toll.
Yet even in such a hellhole, the Jews maintained their humanity. Mutual aid committees, soup kitchens and clandestine trade links with the outside world were established. Flowers sprouted in pots, on balconies and window sills. Warsaw Jews ran schools and a Yiddish theater. When orphaned children were rounded up by the Germans, housemothers and teachers volunteered to accompany them into the trains, knowing full well they were going to their deaths.
The author of one memoir wrote, “It should be noted and stressed to the credit of the Jews that despite the starvation, cold, absence of law and total anarchy, during the ghetto’s entire existence there were no murders or serious crimes.”
Between July 22 and Oct. 3, 1942, more than 300,000 ghetto residents were transported to their deaths. For complex psychological and sociological reasons, there had been little resistance offered by either Jewish or Christian victims of Nazi atrocities.
The Jewish Fighting Organization — the ZOB — commanded by 24-year-old Mordechai Anielweicz, emerged as the major power in the ghetto during the winter of 1943.
The German forces that entered the ghetto on April 19,1943, included 2,100 storm troopers and soldiers. There were 1,200 armed Jewish ghetto fighters. The Germans had 218 machine guns, against which the Jews had two. The Germans had several howitzers and other artillery pieces, against which the Jews had none. The Germans had 1,358 rifles, against which the Jews had 17. The main Jewish weapon were knives, rocks and home-made incendiary bottles (Molotov cocktails).
That day, Jewish fighters opened fire, surprising the Germans. Non-combatant Jews ignored German orders to surrender and remained hidden in bunkers, cellars and sewers. The fighters pelted German tanks with Molotov cocktails and hurled heavy stones and boiling water at the Germans.
One survivor wrote, “When we saw German blood pouring over the streets of Warsaw, after we had seen so much Jewish blood running before that, there was rejoicing — see the wonder and the miracle, those German ‘heroes’ retreated, afraid and terrorized from the Jewish bombs and hand grenades.”
The Germans then relied more upon tanks, howitzers and massive anti-aircraft artillery to force the ZOB fighters to switch from offensive to defensive tactics. Increasingly, the Germans resorted to fire, against which the Jews could not protect themselves. The Nazis used flame-throwers, listening devices and police dogs to dislodge Jews hidden in underground bunkers and shelters. Emerging from their hideouts, Jews were shot, tortured to death or marched to the freight trains.
The Jewish fighters persisted. One ghetto resident wrote in his diary: “Our brave defenders are holding out at their posts. Germans — in spite of everything — have to fight for access to each house. Gates of houses barricaded, each house in the ghetto is a defensive fortress, each flat is a citadel. Jewish defenders are showering missiles from windows and throwing shells.”
Jewish fighters left their bunkers at night to conduct hit-and-run attacks on German formations.
Ultimately, the situation became hopeless for the fighters. On May 16, 1943, German S.S. Gen. Jurgen Stroop reported, “The former Jewish residential district in Warsaw no longer exists.” But the ghetto fighters killed between 100 and 300 Germans and wounded another 1,000.
The Warsaw ghetto uprising was brutally suppressed. Nevertheless, the uprising brought forth a will, a spirit, a dignity which, in the long term, helped to inspire other rebellions against the Nazis, including a 1944 uprising by Warsaw’s Christians, and marked a beginning of a new Jewish movement that would give direction to the creation of a Jewish homeland in Israel. We need to remember what happened in Warsaw during World War II, and to appreciate the heights, even in the worst of circumstances, to which courageous men and women can rise.